Blues want to find new ways to win during Stanley Cup defense

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season begins with Wednesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals when the Blues raise their 2019 Stanley Cup banner. Coverage begins at 6:30p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Ryan O’Reilly walked into the room where his trophy bounty from the 2018-19 NHL season was being held and stopped to process the moment. A year ago at the time he was a member of a Buffalo Sabres team that lost so frequently he told the media the season had caused him to question his love of hockey.

Now there he stood eyeing his trophy haul — Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe Trophy, Clarence S. Campbell Bowl, Selke Trophy — from the past season and couldn’t help but say to himself, “Pretty good year.”

The St. Louis Blues’ summer of celebrating comes to an end Wednesday night when they raise their Stanley Cup banner to the rafters of Enterprise Center ahead of their opening night matchup against the 2018 champion Washington Capitals (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live stream).

The parades are over. The celebratory singing of “Gloria” has come to an end (for now). The beverage intake has gone from various alcohols to protein shakes. The rings have been handed out. And it’s time to go through the grind all over again.

“I think [the banner raising is] the last reflection before you start the journey again to the next one,” O’Reilly told NBC Sports. “Not changing a lot on our team, having a lot of the same guys, looking up [at the banner], it’s going to be cool. It’s going to be an electric night. 

“Once it’s up, it’s back to work to do it again. I’m excited for that. The best part of the journey is playing the game and being together as a group.”

One year before the Blues won the first Cup title in franchise history, Vladimir Tarasenko watched as his best friend, Dmitry Orlov, celebrated the Capitals’ championship win back home in Russia, along with fellow countrymen Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Tarasenko wanted to experience that for himself after years of disappointment in St. Louis and was inspired by what the Capitals had done.

“It shows if you follow your goal you can make it happen,” said Tarasenko.

Now that they’re champions and coming off the short summer that comes with that achievement, the Blues realize they will have a target on their backs. The roster will be just about the same as it was that glorious night in Boston, outside of Patrick Maroon and Joel Edmundson. That’s one reason why O’Reilly and Tarasenko feel they can repeat, something only the Pittsburgh Penguins have been able to achieve in the last two decades.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST / WEST / STANLEY CUP]

“It’s never easy because every team is gunning for you,” O’Reilly said. “I think a good lesson for us, and we’ve talked about it with guys, is that we’re not going to do it the same way. We’re going to have to do it a completely different way; still keep the staples and the things we learned throughout last year, but we’re going to have to find a new way. We’re going to have to come out in games and jump on them right away, we can’t wait a bit until we find it. We have to be more aggressive in situations. There’s going to be that adjustment, too, of us finding new ways to have success.”

The way the 2018-19 Blues found success is something no team wants to repeat, of course. Crapping the bed in the first few months of the season, firing your coach in November, and finding yourself 31st in a league of 31 teams in early January, and turning to an unknown goalie isn’t a recommended approach if you have Stanley Cup dreams.

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So what challenges lie ahead for the Blues, aside from the usual injuries and cliche’d “Stanley Cup hangover”? Getting your opponent’s best, for one.

“Every team’s going to play against you a little bit differently because you’re Stanley Cup champions and everybody wants to prove that they can beat the Stanley Cup champion when they have the chance to do that,” Ovechkin told NBC Sports.

For some teams, they can start to feel the effects of a short summer and the compact schedule.

“I don’t know if it was so much the start but once the heaviness of the season starts to set in in December, January that’s when reality sets in, that’s when those dog days of the year are tough, when teams start to feel the schedule a little bit and some teams fall off,” said Jonathan Toews, whose Chicago Blackhawks had to defend three Cup titles. “That’s a time when you run on fumes a little bit and you’ve got to catch yourself and say Hey, we’ve got to do our job, we’ve got to stay with it.”

The first half schedule for the Blues isn’t too bad, but following their January bye week and the NHL All-Star Break, which St. Louis is hosting, that’s when it gets tough. 

In February, the Blues are playing practically every other night with 15 games in 29 days, including six away from home, four of which come against Central Division opponents. In a division that is promising once again to be highly competitive, those will be vital points on the line during a grinding portion of the schedule.

All the Blues can do is try to best prepare themselves for another 82-game slog towards the playoffs. It will be a learning experience no matter how this season ends for them.

“I guess once you’ve been through it once you definitely figure out what you could’ve done better the next time around,” said Toews. “Every situation is different depending on how many guys you lost in the offseason. The bottom line is you want to get back to the playoffs, you don’t want do make excuses. It’s always nice to acknowledge what the difficulties actually are so you can find ways to deal with it.”

It remains to be seen if Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” will return as the Blues’ post-win anthem, or if the shelf that held pucks from their 61 wins will be back, empty and ready to be filled again. Those are memories from last season and the time has called for the page to be turned. 

While the roster is nearly the same, and head coach Craig Berube no longer has “interim” attached to his title, the Blues are ready to go again. Just drop the puck.

“It’s funny, the best thing about the whole winning the Stanley Cup was playing the games,” said O’Reilly. “Those were super intense games, just so much fun. No one’s out there thinking I’ve gotta do this, I’ve gotta do that, you’re just doing it. That’s something I crave again, being in that situation and having those amazing opportunities to do great things. That’s what excites me. 

“For me, it was kind of an easy transition. It’s our Cup and we’re going to keep it. It goes in a case and we’re going to get it again at the end of it. I can’t wait to play in the games and compete for it again.”

Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN with a special 90-minute edition of NHL Live, as host Kathryn Tappen, analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp, and NHL insider Bob McKenzie preview the evening’s doubleheader and the upcoming 2019-20 season. Jeremy Roenick will be on-site in St. Louis to capture the scene outside Enterprise Center prior to the raising of the Blues’ first-ever Stanley Cup championship banner.

Mike Emrick, who returns for his 15th season as NBC Sports’ lead NHL play-by-play commentator, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Capitals-Blues from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo.

MORE:
2019-20 NHL Power Rankings
PHT’s 2019-20 season previews
• 2019 NHL free agency tracker
NHL on NBC television schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Challenging Byfuglien’s suspension; Where is Sharks’ offense?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Should the Montreal Canadiens hire Mike Babcock? (Montreal Gazette)

• The Devils have been struggling badly on special teams. (All About the Jersey)

• Lightning forward Yanni Gourde is even better than you think. (Raw Charge)

• How easy will it be to fix the Toronto Maple Leafs? (Pension Plan Puppets)

Brett Connolly has been a very useful asset for the Florida Panthers. (Rat Trick)

• The Coyotes goalie tandem has been terrific this season. (Five For Howling)

• The NHLPA is challenging the Dustin Byfuglien suspension. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• The Bolts can benefit from this difficult start. (NHL.com)

• Where is the San Jose Sharks’ offense? (Rotoworld)

• The Ducks are satisfied with Garnet Hathaway‘s three-game suspension. (OC Register)

• Sheldon Keefe has a quiet confidence about him that should help him guide the Leafs. (TSN)

Zack Kassian has found a spot on the Oilers’ top line. (Sportsnet)

• There’s a lot of questions facing Keefe and he’ll success will depend on answering them. (Editor in Leaf)

Patrice Bergeron is starting to get healthier. (NBC Sports Boston)

• The Blue Jackets have added Paul MacLean to their staff (NHL.com/BlueJackets)

Brendan Perlini talks about his fresh start in Detroit and his English upbringing. (Sporting News)

• Isles goalie prospect Ilya Sorokin wants to be in the NHL next season. (The Sports Daily)

• Kris Versteeg left the Rockford Ice Hogs on Sunday and the team isn’t in a rush to name a new captain. (Second City Hockey)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Streaks good and bad around NHL; Leafs turn the page

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Turning over new Maple Leafs

One streak did end, although Sheldon Keefe has to hope that his NHL head coaching career will begin with a streak that goes beyond a debut win. The Maple Leafs ended their losing streak at six games by beating the Coyotes 3-1 in their first game after Mike Babcock fired. Read up on that win here.

From hot streaks to cold

The Islanders maintained their now-franchise-record breaking point streak of 16 games by beating the Penguins in overtime. In doing so, the Isles are also on a five-game winning streak. The Dallas Stars matched that winning streak with their fifth victory in a row, and are pretty hot in their own right, going 9-0-1 in their last 10 games. They’re also 12-1-1 in their last 14 contests.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Flames put forth a painful, pitiful effort in dropping their sixth straight loss. The Predators were more competitive in many ways on Thursday, but Nashville has also lost six in a row. Tense times for two teams that expected to be Western Conference contenders.

Three Stars

1. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

Heading into Thursday’s game, Giroux was on a three-game pointless streak, and only had a single point (one goal) over his past six games. The veteran forward exploded with a two-goal, two-assist performance to help the Flyers beat the Hurricanes.

Giroux’s two assists were primary assists, and his second goal ended up being the game-winner. He even threw in a 17-10 mark on faceoffs for good measure.

2. Zach Sanford, St. Louis Blues

Despite a modest 13:19 in ice time on Thursday, Sanford helped lead the charge as the Blues humiliated a flustered Flames team. Sanford scored the game’s first goal (thus getting a GWG) and added three assists during a four-point performance that was almost as impressive as Giroux’s output.

If you’d prefer handing this star to Jordan Binnington for his 40-save shutout, that’s totally understandable.

3. Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers

Florida found itself down 4-0 with less than two minutes remaining in the second period, yet managed to enter the third period down a more palatable 4-2. From there, Ekblad took over, scoring a goal and an assist during the third period, then adding the overtime game-winner to lock up a comeback win for Florida. Like Giroux, Ekblad came into the night’s action on a cold streak, having only managed a goal over seven games.

For me, Ekblad’s little trot after the OT-GWG breaks the tie with other players who scored three points on Thursday:

Highlight of the Night

No doubt about it, that goes Tuukka Rask, whose save rivals Marc-Andre Fleury for the save of the week/month/year. This post has more.

Benn the Bulldozer

On a less busy night, Jamie Benn trucking Mark Scheifele than scoring a pretty game-winning goal would be the top dog. It’s at least worth watching:

Factoids

  • The Panthers have now overcome four-goal deficits to win games twice in 2019-20, joining the 1983-84 Oilers as the only teams to manage such wins twice in the same season, according to NHL PR.
  • Sportsnet notes that the Flames are on a streak of 362:46 without taking a lead, the longest stretch in franchise history. Um, at least they haven’t squandered any leads, then? The Maple Leafs’ run without a lead ended at 446:47 when Tyson Barrie scored the opening goal on Thursday, also according to Sportsnet.
  • Via NHL PR: Cale Makar is the first Avs/Nordiques rookie defenseman to generate at least 15 points in a single month, and sixth overall among the franchise’s defensemen.

Scores

BOS 3 – BUF 2
FLA 5 – ANA 4 (OT)
NYI 4 – PIT 3 (OT)
PHI 5 – CAR 3
CBJ 5 – DET 4
STL 5 – CGY 0
VAN 6 – NSH 3
MIN 3 – COL 2
TBL 4 – CHI 2
DAL 5 – WPG 3
TOR 3 – ARI 1
SJS 2 – VGK 1 (OT)
LAK 5 – EDM 1

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Maple Leafs end skid in first Babcock-less game

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If it weren’t for Vinnie Hinostroza spoiling Frederik Andersen‘s shutout with 17 seconds left, Thursday would have been just about perfect for the Toronto Maple Leafs during their first game post-Mike Babcock.

Most importantly, the Maple Leafs ended their six-game losing streak with a win. (Yes, that makes brand-new head coach Sheldon Keefe 1-0-0.)

The symmetry starts to go up a notch when you consider that, on this night, Tyson Barrie finally scored his first goal of the 2019-20 season, which is also his first with the Maple Leafs. Barrie is up there when you picture Leafs with relief of Babcock grief, so scoring here almost feels on-the-nose:

That Barrie goal gave the Maple Leafs a coveted 1-0 lead, and that’s quite a reversal from how things could have felt if Andersen didn’t make this great glove save (which would have stood out even more if Tuukka Rask didn’t give Marc-Andre Fleury competition with an absolutely ludicrous stop).

The underlying numbers are promising, too. In particular, it has to be uplifting to see that the Maple Leafs managed an impressive 18-7 advantage in high-danger chances at all strengths, according to Natural Stat Trick.

There’s a lot to like for the Leafs, but there’s also no denying that the Maple Leafs have a lot of work to do — and a hole they need to dig out of. That win merely brought them back to “.500,” as they’re now 10-10-4 for 24 standings points in 24 games. They wouldn’t make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began on Thursday night, and Toronto’s ninth place standing is even inflated when you realize that teams right behind them hold games in hand. (Toronto’s 24 games played ties for the most in the NHL, while teams like the Lightning [22 points in 19 GP] loom large.)

Ultimately, though, the Maple Leafs can only control what they’re doing on the ice. So far, so good then, when you consider how they’re playing with Keefe pulling the strings instead of Babs.

More on Babcock, Leafs:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blues’ Dunn levels Flames’ Mangiapane with huge hit

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These are painful times for the Calgary Flames … sometimes literally.

By falling 5-0 to the St. Louis Blues on Thursday, the Flames have now dropped six consecutive games. It’s hard not to think a little bit about the Toronto Maple Leafs firing Mike Babcock amid their slump when considering the Flames’ own struggles, both now and in their own disappointing showing in Round 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Talk of big changes (to coaching, Johnny Gaudreau, the GM, or anything else) can wait for another day … maybe one soon? For now, let’s bask in the fearful glow of Vince Dunn‘s hit on Andrew Mangiapane, as you can witness in the video above this post’s headline.

Is that hit symbolic of the Flames’ pains lately, or could you best embody that agony by comparing the team to its most snakebitten player, Sam Bennett?

Either way, these are uncomfortable times for the Flames, and not just Mangiapane.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.